The more ambitious television gets, the more apparent its budgetary limits become. Television can build intricate worlds with the sets and costumes to match, but when it comes time for the action sequences and big moments that form the climax of a blockbuster film—television just can’t compete. The action budget must be carefully marshaled for an episode or two toward the season’s end, and everything building up to it is often static talk that feels trapped in amber by the opulence surrounding it. Action that’s constantly driving forward simply can’t be the provenance of the TV period piece, because that action costs too much money.
All of this means that Black Sails, Starz’s fitfully involving new pirate drama, becomes less a tale of bloodthirsty curs roaming the high seas, cutting down everyone they come upon, and more a tale of the pirate bureaucracy, of the democratic procedures and accounting tricks that keep mutiny from overthrowing captains of pirate ships. This actually could have been a solid approach to a historical drama that has to duck the overtly spectacular at every turn. Battlestar Galactica captured the ethos of the space opera while staying mostly soundstage-bound by funneling much of the action into the political sphere. But Black Sails is unable to get viewers invested in its numerous back-stabbings, political maneuverings, and double-crossings. Instead, it’s a show where things continuously seem about to happen, only for the story to wander off in search of other, less pressing concerns.
At Black Sails’ center is its sole consistently compelling character, the occasionally ruthless, occasionally paternal Captain Flint, played by Toby Stephens with a kind of pragmatic “why the hell not” attitude that could just as easily explode in violence as it could carefully modulated passion. When the series opens, it’s on a ship that’s about to be boarded by Flint and his men. The sequence spends a lengthy amount of time in the ship’s hold, where its crew has battened itself down to attempt to defend itself. Black Sails nicely captures the raw terror of being out in the middle of the sea, only to be taken over by terrifying criminals—including Flint. The first time viewers see Flint is as a pair of eyes, swathed in black fabric and shadow. It’s an introduction the character almost lives up to.
Flint is the most compelling character on the show because he’s constantly dancing one or two steps ahead of a long string of lies he’s been telling for months or even years—lies that keep him alive and pursuing a goal that remains slightly nebulous in the series’ first four episodes. Flint has been pushing his crew for months without taking the kind of prize that would result in a big payday for his men. Whispers of mutiny swirl about the ship, but Flint stays alive thanks to those lies, the loyalty of a few key men, and clever accounting. (Yes, this show has a pirate accountant; sadly, he’s a relatively minor character.) He’s in pursuit of a page out of a ship’s schedule, one that will take him to treasure unimaginable.
If the show were just about Flint, it might be an agreeably rip-roaring good time. But Black Sails wants to be about seemingly everyone in its pirate world, and that proves to be the show’s undoing. The primary base of operations turns out to be not the ship but Nassau, a city that’s free and open to pirates thanks to deals cut with its governor, the often absent Richard Guthrie (Sean Cameron Michael). The person who’s really in charge around the island is Guthrie’s daughter, Eleanor (Hannah New), and she’s intent on keeping it free from government interference, as it’s the only way she’ll keep the level of power she has. This is so far, so good. A free pirate-island kingdom could be a fun setting for a show, particularly if the show figured out a way to perk up Eleanor.
But the series keeps introducing new elements—and its third lead, John Silver (Luke Arnold), is at the center of almost all of the worst of them. An opportunist who can’t help but take whatever he wants with a gleam in his eye, John is supposed to be something of a charming rapscallion, a guy viewers will find more immediately engaging when compared to the more mysterious Flint. Instead, he’s a frat-boy douchebag type, whose mere presence can make scenes irritating because his cocksure certainty just makes him seem like an asshole. Because John is the audience’s eyes into pirate world, viewers spend a lot of time with him, watching him manipulate the system to his advantage, but Arnold’s performance never goes beyond the smirk.
And there’s a ton of pirate world to introduce, up to and including a whole other ship, and a mysterious woman who lives in the middle of nowhere and may be the key to Flint’s secrets. That’s to say nothing of the series’ largely awful female characters, who are either boring functionaries (Eleanor), prostitutes simply there to show off a bunch of naked breasts whenever the narrative needs some juice, or potentially powerful figures who are constantly beaten down and toted around. The series tries to gain some tenderness via a lesbian relationship between two of the female characters, but it mostly ends up feeling salacious.
Fans of pirate literature will notice that many of the names in Black Sails correspond with characters from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and telling the story of how the treasure from that novel came to be isn’t a bad idea for a TV series (particularly as said fictional characters find their lives intersecting with historical pirates, as happens often). Indeed, the show constantly threatens to become interesting—to abruptly turn into a pirate-themed version of The Shield’s money train arc. The problem is that it’s never so confident as to simply settle in and do that, casting its net so wide that what it’s able to haul in is thin on the ground.
Creators Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine have worked on good programs before, and there’s a possibility they’ll turn this one around, too. But the overriding impression one gets from Black Sails is in the handful of scenes set onboard the deck of Flint’s ship. The camera points at the blue, blue sky (filmed in South Africa), the characters looming over it in ways that are never evocative or convincing. Occasionally, it shakes or moves about, the better to convince viewers the characters are out at sea. But whatever it does, it can’t tilt over to reveal that there is no water to be found anywhere. Black Sails is a handsome illusion at times, but it rarely finds its way beyond that.
Created by: Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine
Starring: Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Luke Arnold, Jessica Parker Kennedy, Tom Hopper
Debuts: Saturday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Starz.
Format: Hour-long drama
Four episodes watched for review